Football: Self-confidence ensures Coventry enter unfamiliar territory

Newcastle United 0 Coventry City 0
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The Independent Online
GORDON STRACHAN'S jaw dropped. "I could be here all night," he said. Coventry's managerial mastermind had, after all, been asked to outline specifically what had improved in the past 12 months at Highfield Road.

Most importantly of all, the transformation is evident in black and white this morning. Coventry sit in the upper half of the Premiership table, a comfortable 10th with 40 points from 29 games.

As Strachan observed: "It normally takes us until the last game of the season to hit 40 points." After 29 games last season, Coventry were in relegation territory with 29 points.

For Newcastle, the change has been inverse - worryingly so, it has to be said. A return of 35 points from 28 matches, 13 less than at the same stage last season, may be index linked to the overhaul Kenny Dalglish has been making to the playing staff at St James' Park, but the harsh reality is Newcastle have fallen too close to the drop zone for comfort.

Their 13th failure to win in 15 Premiership matches has left them just four points ahead of Tottenham and Barnsley. They can ill afford another maximum points failure against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night. After Attilio Lombardo's team leave town, Newcastle will have just two home games remaining.

The worrying thing for Dalglish on Saturday was that his team, after promising signs of a return to form in their previous two home games, were for the most part disjointed and distinctly unthreatening in front of goal. The closest they came to scoring, in fact, was courtesy of Dion Dublin, who unwittingly forced a fine save from Steve Ogrizovic six minutes into the second half.

That would have been a gross injustice, for Dublin's assured performance at the heart of the Coventry defence was the most impressive of the afternoon. With the able assistance of Gary Breen, he succeeded in limiting Alan Shearer, a fellow England centre-forward, to just the one half chance.

That will provide Shearer and his manager with food for thought should Dublin and his colleagues overcome Sheffield United at Bramall Lane tomorrow night to set up a rematch between the two teams at neutral Old Trafford in the FA Cup semi-final on 5 April. Strachan, by the same token, would have to decide whether he could afford to play without Dublin's presence up front.

Viorel Moldovan missed two sitters for Coventry on Saturday, the second after slipping past Nikos Dabizas, who otherwise looked a defensive dab hand in the debut Stuart Pearce's first-half injury afforded him. "That was a plus point," Dalglish said. And points are thin on the ground at St James' Park these days.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Pistone, Howey, Albert (Barton, 80), Pearce (Dabizas, 30); Ketsbaia, Lee, Batty, Speed; Andersson, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Barnes, Tomasson, Hislop (gk).

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Nilsson, Dublin, Breen, Burrows; Telfer (Strachan, 89), Boeteng, Soltvedt, Whelan; Moldovan (Haworth, 75), Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Shaw, Williams, Howie (gk).

Bookings: Newcastle Albert. Coventry Whelan.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Man of the match: Dublin.

Attendance: 36,767.

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